Monday, April 17, 2017
In December 1984, former Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq held a referendum on his controversial and divisive Islamization policies. The Islamist ruler won a landslide victory albeit independent observers noted widespread irregularities in the vote. The referendum extended Haq's presidential term by five years and gave him unlimited powers. Haq had enormous powers even before the referendum, but from 1985 to his death in a plane crash in 1988, the general acted like a "caliph." Pakistan's liberal sections say their country never really recovered after the 1984 referendum.
There can't be accurate comparisons between Turkish politics under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Pakistan of the 1980s, but the victory for the "yes" camp in Turkey's April 16 referendum reminded many South Asians of Pakistan's disastrous experience with authoritarianism and Islamism.
"RIP, Turkey. By the way Turkey, we beat you at this game by 33 years. We did the same under Zia ul-Haq in 1984," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based development professional, wrote on Facebook.
Other social media users in Pakistan also pointed to the similarities.
Pakistanis can definitely share a thing or two with the Turkish people about how mixing politics and religion can be fatal for a nation. Apart from the uncanny similarities between Haq and Erdogan, a protracted war in the neighboring country, the role of the West in defeating a "common enemy," and the training of numerous militias to topple a foreign government are only some other parallels between Pakistan and Turkey, which otherwise have very different historical and geopolitical outlooks.
The rise of Islamic extremism in Turkey as a result of the Syrian conflict, and the way President Erdogan is using the war to silence dissent against his authoritarian rule and crush Kurdish separatists are some of the factors that are likely to shape Turkey's future.
Pakistan underwent a similar transformation in the 1980s and is still struggling to come out of it.
The Afghan war of the 1980s changed the political landscape of Pakistan forever. Like Ankara, Islamabad decided to become a party to the war at the behest of the West to achieve its own strategic goals - to expand its area of operation in Afghanistan to counter the Indian influence.
Also, like Erdogan, former Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq promoted a hard-line Islamic ideology in his country and cracked down on liberal political groups and activists. He expected the West to turn a blind eye to grave human rights violations in Pakistan, as he believed he was doing a favor to the US by fighting its proxy war in Afghanistan.
In an article published by news site Al-Monitor, prominent Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin warned his countrymen against a possible "Pakistanization" of Turkey. He argued that "the armed uprising in Syria, with the goal of changing the regime, has given birth to organizations that are threatening the entire population of the region, but Turkey is continuing on its way in total disregard for the perils of 'Pakistanization.'"
Tastekin quotes Mushahid Hussein, the chairman of the Pakistani Senate's Defense Committee, as warning former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - when the ex-premier visited Islamabad - against the "Pakistanization" of his country.
"You are repeating in Syria the mistakes we made in Afghanistan. Organizations you support now will turn against you. Pakistan was wrong in becoming party to the war in Afghanistan and was wrong in supporting the Taliban. We are now paying the costs of these mistakes," Hussein was quoted as saying in the article.
Training of militants
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, believes it is risky to compare Turkey and Pakistan as they are different in many ways, but there are some striking convergences as well: "The main one is the overall volatile dynamic - a strongman-type government presiding over an environment of growing instability and terrorist threats. There is also a level of deepening Islamization in Turkey today that bears uncanny resemblances to what happened in Pakistan in the 80s."
The renowned expert says that Ankara is treading a very dangerous path by training and arming the rebels in Syria and Iraq.
"Whenever a state actor develops a relationship with armed non-state actors, you risk major blowback. That is the case no matter what the context - Pakistan, Turkey, and even, quite frankly, the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. You never know what these non-state actors will do to you - they may want state support today, but that doesn't mean they won't turn on you tomorrow," Kugelman told DW.
Rise of Islamism
According to Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islamic extremism, the Islamist resurgence in Turkey is not a new phenomenon; it started two decades ago.
Many experts associate the rise of Islamism in Pakistan with the 1980s war in Afghanistan but Jamal is one of the analysts who trace back its origins in the early 1950s.
"But that is where the parallels and similarities end. Turkey has been a geographical entity for centuries and does not feel psychologically insecure. Pakistan, on the other hand, has no history. It was created in the name of Islam and it has struggled to survive by trying not to be what India is," Jamal told DW. Meanwhile, the Turkish state and society still remain largely secular, he added.
Kugelman, however, believes that might change in Turkey: "If Saudi-sourced sects of Islam are starting to compete with Sufi Islam in Turkey, then we could be seeing history repeating itself - a cause of a Saudi-imported version of Islam eclipsing a more moderate form of Islam, just like it happened in Pakistan. The question is how much influence and reach Saudi-sourced schools of Islam could enjoy in Turkey. We don't yet know how this will all play out in Turkey."
But Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin has no doubts that his country is "now seeing the beginnings of a tragic Deobendi-esque transition from Sufism to radicalism," and that he is "not surprised to hear of hundreds of Turkish citizens joining IS and Jabhat al-Nusra" jihadist groups.
A tight grip on power
Critics accuse President Erdogan of authoritarianism and say he is tightening his grip on power, more so after the April 16 referendum. The government is cracking down on dissidents, secular and Kurdish activists and journalists, and has introduced controversial terror laws that the rights groups deem as draconian. Despite domestic opposition to his policies, the president continues on the path using the Syrian war as a bargaining chip.
"Erdogan has used wars in Iraq and Syria to not only crush political dissent against his government and the Kurdish nationalists but also to further his Islamist agenda," analyst Arif Jamal said.
Tastekin believes the ambitions of Zia ul-Haq and Erdogan are similar - the former "dreamed of expanding Pakistan's sphere of influence first to Afghanistan and then to Asia, and Turkey's President Erdogan wanted to pray in Damascus' Emeviye Mosque and become caliph there," he underlined.
The aftermath of the brutal murder of Mashal Khan at the hands of fellow students on a Mardan campus has been one of mixed responses, as is usually the case. There are, however, some heartening aspects to the response, as soon from various quarters.
The first point to be noted is that despite the clouds of doubt around the role of the university administration, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, for his part, came out explicitly stating that there has been no evidence of the young man having committed blasphemy. This should help counter the speculation and propaganda by malicious elements who seek to justify the brutal murder. While there are those who justifiably find it tragic that the views and actions of a young man are called into scrutiny after his murder at the hands of a crazed lynch mob, the ground realities in Pakistan must be borne in mind. Past experience teaches us that such murders usually generate a furious storm of anger from the religious right-wing against anyone who questions the flimsy and spurious accusations against the victim. This time, however, it would appear that things are a bit different. Some have broken silence, and others have gone against established habits.
In Karachi, prominent madrassah cleric Mufti Naeem came out openly to say that the slain Mashal is shaheed (martyr) — thus clearly condemning the murderers. Certain TV anchors, who have in the past done their utmost to whip up lynch-mobs and defend their actions, have this time taken a similar stance to Mufti Naeem. This is not to commend such TV anchors as having turned over a new leaf, but to point out that even the usual trouble-makers appear somewhat hesitant to stoke the madness.
One could argue, with the most cautious optimism that there is some realization in both state and society that such horrific madness cannot be condoned or encouraged.
The larger problem, of course, still remains. There are the procedural and legal problems in the Blasphemy Laws. And above all, there is the highly toxic discourse around alleged ‘blasphemy’, which is peddled by religious elements looking to do politics on the cheap. And then there is the attitude of the state, which has ranged from abject helplessness to criminal support for such dark forces — up to the very recent past, as seen in the case of the missing bloggers.
But perhaps most heartening is the response of the people in Mashal’s village, who took to open and well-attended protests, in defence of their unjustly slain son. They did so, even defying the village mullah who had chosen the usual slander and maligning of the victim.
“Mashal is innocent, Mashal is a martyr!” they chanted earlier in the streets where the young man came from. May their clarity and courage represent a turning-point in Pakistan’s struggle against its own dark, obscurantist, extremist under-belly.
Not them. The snarling, swirling, berserk mob did kill Mashal - sticks wielded by their arms cracked his skull, and their blood-soaked feet stamped out the last vestiges of life. But responsibility extends beyond the confines of factual action and reaction. When the mob charged the university hostel, it was little more than a feral animal, overwhelmed by primal instinct, individuals fused into one throbbing, screaming entity. Its virility questioned, its honour threatened, and its very existence in jeopardy. Rallied by visions of a glorious duty to which there is no second. What reason is left in that maelstrom of guttural frenzy? Very little. Conscience? None.
Like the froth that forms on a stagnant pool stirred up with a stick, the mob is the residue of a decaying body – a symptom, not the cause. While our justice towards them will be swift, perhaps it is time we looked at the person who wielded the stirring stick, and more importantly, who allowed the pool to stagnate in the first place.
The instigators are not hard to find, for they are not trying to hide at all. Their murderous diktats, delivered in sonorous slogans, are printed boldly on walls and banners. They build mausoleums for the terrorist Mumtaz Qadri and raise his pre-teenage son to the status of a saint. They are not hard to find at all, if we are really looking. A state that has weaponised religion is harder to spot – behind a clean shave and a crisp uniform fundamentalism becomes patriotism, and objections become treasons.
Over the next few days and weeks these instigators will be denounced - directly by some and in veiled innuendos by most. Condemnation will rain down and strict actions proposed – and rightly so. Theirs is the provocative whisper in the ear of the ‘believer’, the threat of vigilante violence, and the promise of heavenly debauchery.
But responsibility, as we have noticed, extends beyond the confines of factual action and reaction. The real responsibility for Mardan, dear reader, lies with you. Your cowardice and timidity has given space to a narrative that will consume us all.
Don’t take offence, don’t raise your voice in indignation – I know you are humane, a voice of sanity. Your heart quickened with disgust at the horrific images in Mardan just like the rest, and your denunciation was as scathing as they came. But what use is your denunciation that echoes in empty chambers you have built for yourself? A war rages in the streets, and you are content at wrinkling your noses from your ivory towers.
Ideas are nurtured by blood and sweat, revolutions built on sacrifice. In the tussle over the religious extremism one side is out in droves going toe to toe with law enforcement and staring down any official who dares oppose it. The other laments in plush living rooms with like-minded individuals, leaves Facebook statuses to be read by carefully curated audiences and hides behind the veil of anonymity. Is this the extent of moderate Pakistan’s outrage, a social media condemnation and token tributes to Mashal?
There is yet strength in your numbers that you do not know. Stand on an intersection, block the parliament road, call your local representative, anything. Put your bodies on the line, and make your presence be felt. Politicians are creatures of pragmatism; like a fungus, they grow towards the path of least resistance. A backlash from the right-wing keeps them from acting as they should to tackle this problem; a backlash from the moderates and the left-wing is needed to push them into action. 50 madrassah students, 25 motorbikes, and a tree whittled down to sticks is all that is needed to block a street and get the government’s attention – and religious seminaries have done so since time immemorial to great effect. Tolerant, rational Pakistanis number in millions, yet outside of a few trembling candle vigils threatened by a stray gust of wind when was the last time moderate Pakistan protested this brutality, when have they marched on government or come out in numbers? When have you?
“This doesn’t affect me” you’ll say, “I have my own safety to think about” you’ll add. And that is undoubtedly true – nothing about this endeavor is safe. But if safety was the prime concern the great advancements of liberal and tolerant thought – from upheavals like the French Revolution to campaigns like the Civil Rights Movement – would never have happened. At some point personal safety needs to be put aside for your ideals. Change – real, hard, implausible change, doesn’t come easy.
Let’s look at the other objection – that this doesn’t affect you. Well, it was true when they burned a poverty-stricken Christian couple over a brick kiln in Kot Radha Krishan; you weren’t poor nor Christian. It was true when they killed Ahmedis in their mosques in Gujaranwala; you weren’t an Ahmedi cleric, you are a middle-class Sunni. What about now? When a young, educated, bright student, just like you is so many ways, was butchered by his fellow students in a university – is it still too far away, is it still not your concern?
I understand. I know you are scared, so am I. But think of this; “Mashal” means torch in Urdu – the burning standard that lights a darkened path and leads the way for the rest to follow. Think of that, and put some steel in your will. This is your responsibility.